31. Reviewing design review

The new Design Council CABE have been reviewing design review.  One of the first moves of the new organisation was to commissioned Peter Bishop (ex-Head of Design for London) to review design support within the built environment and to consider what a nationwide system of support might look like.  As a feed into the process a survey was launched to ask five key questions:

  1. How should planning policy reflect questions of design?
  2. What issues affect the delivery of well-designed development?
  3. How effective are existing means of design support?
  4. Is design review a valid model?
  5. In an age of localism how can local skills and aspirations best be enabled and standards of engagement coordinated?

Each are hugely complex questions, but making them even more complex is the fact that the answers will be contextually dependent, determined by the political, governance and socio-economic environments that vary around the country and that will dictate the relative access to design skills and resources through which design outcomes are shaped.  Providing (perhaps) the first lesson of localism, a one-size-fits-all framework for our engagement with design is likely to be inappropriate; an issue we will come back to as we take each question in turn:

How should planning policy reflect questions of design?

From time to time government revises its headline policies on planning and each time the relationship between planning and design is debated.  In the last iteration – PPS1 2005 – the most definitive statement yet on that relationship was offered: “Good design is indivisible from good planning” (para. 33).  To my mind, the simple answer to the first question is that we need little more than this next time around, in other words a simple, powerful and unequivocal statement that the pursuit of good design represents a central pillar of planning, without which planning (town & country, spatial, or urban & regional) does not really exist.  This is inevitable because whenever we make a decision, large or small, regarding the distribution and relationship of assets, amenities or activities we are consciously shaping and reshaping for the better or worse the human and natural environment around us, in other words we are designing in order that we might plan.

What issues affect the delivery of well designed development?

Coming to the second question, it is also valuable for government to remind us in policy of the exact nature and limits of this design endeavour, whilst refraining (at least in policy) from attempting to tell local authorities and others exactly how to do it (the no one-size-fits-all point above).  In other words, if one authority wants detail and prescription in policy and another chooses broad principle and encouragement, then so be it – that is localism!  All, however, should be in a position to actively and creatively engage with the design implications of their own and others’ decisions from the broadest strategic scale, through the all important urban design framework, to the level of detailed public realm, landscape and building design.  Thus the delivery of a well designed environment, by which one might mean simply one that is sustainable, liveable and fulfilling, is dependent on getting the framework for the city or settlement right across all its scales.  That requires planners, whether in plan-making, regulatory, project-based or community-focused roles, who are at the top of their game, actively ‘designing’ the city themselves, or coordinating the actions of others towards larger defined and clearly spatialised goals.  We need skilled and confident professionals with the time and resources to prepare and project a clear place-based vision as well as the passion to convince others of the merits of what they propose.

How effective are existing means of design support?

Which brings us to the third question, and to an important distinction between integrated and separated design support.  My argument thus far has been that planning is essentially a design discipline and that planners are (or should be) engaging in a process of design through their day to day activities.  In such a context design should not be seen as a ‘support’ function at all, rather it is at the core of planning.  Inevitably, however, there will be those tasks for which more specialist urban, landscape or architectural design skills are required and the question where these should be located and how to access them comes to the fore.  To my mind, the ‘optimum’ solution is very clear, they should be fully integrated within the same planning teams that are making the plans, controlling the development, and carrying out all the other functions of planning.  In this manner a seamless transition is provided between specialist and ‘non-specialist’ functions, helping to support the creative and positive culture of planning that arguably only the most dynamic planning departments currently possess, whilst offering input based firmly on in-depth knowledge of the locality to which it relates.

Is design review a valid model?

So, coming to the fourth question, it follows from the answer above that a second best model of design advice is likely to be the separated one.  However, we also need to be realistic, and accept that in the absence of adequate integrated design advice (almost everywhere), the availability of external advice can and does play a vital role in supporting local planning and development activities.  Moreover, it has the distinct advantage of being one step removed from the sometimes perverse political machinations of some local planning processes, not in terms of final decision-taking, but in terms of offering dispassionate and focused advice in the absence of local political pressures.  In a model where design is seen as a separate and specialist (even sometimes expendable) input into planning, external design review can also add gravitas to the cause of better design and help to convince sceptics of its value.  In such circumstances, national design review may carry more weight than regional, which may carry more than local external design review.  This, however, may well be at the expense of a full understanding of local context, which in users eyes may undermine the process.  Moreover, isolated design review without a follow-up process of engagement in projects, either through subsequent design review or, more desirably, through direct enabling of an enhanced design / planning process, may be of limited value.

In an age of localism how can local skills and aspirations best be enabled and standards of engagement coordinated?

Coming to the final question, the discussion so far suggests a hierarchy of design governance that also reflects a hierarchy of localism.  At the top comes an integrated local service of planning that is fully skilled to deliver both a creative and proactive planning service with the sorts of specialist design inputs required to optimise planning outcomes.  Second a system of more limited local planning that whilst fully aware and engaged in design processes is nevertheless able to draw upon external specialist and locally aware design advice in which review activities are backed, as and when required, by focussed enabling support.  Third, a process where local planning is only able to draw upon distant and detached review services with no or little follow-up.  And finally where de-skilled local planning sits in glorious isolation with no support and little apparent external interest in design.

The conclusion therefore is that the more integrated, the more active and the more local design engagement is, the better.  BUT in the absence of the ideal or even the second best, some design input will always be better than none!

So where does Design Council CABE fit in to all this?  The answer is in two critical ways.  First (like its predecessor) in cajoling, encouraging, supporting and convincing through evidence the range of actors involved in the local development processes about the merits of better design and the benefits of moving towards the ‘optimum’ process described above.  This is clearly a role for a national organisation, and a more active engagement specifically with planning than its predecessor ever achieved would be a valuable place to start.  Second, where an optimum process is not achieved (and even where it is), providing an important source of advice, best practice and enabling for the relatively small number of nationally important projects that simply demand a national stage because of their significance or because of the lessons they might offer to others.  Both roles show no signs of needing to diminish any time soon!

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


June 2011